The matatus of Nairobi: A necessary bane

Unorganised public transport system in the Kenyan city presents several challenges towards sustainable mobility  

By Shourabh Gupta
Published: Thursday 04 August 2022
Matatus or private minibuses add to congestion and pollution woes in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Matatus or private minibuses add to congestion and pollution woes in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo: Wikimedia Commons Matatus or private minibuses add to congestion and pollution woes in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The ubiquitous matatus in the city of Nairobi, are privately owned minibuses that cater to a vast populace across different income groups and social classes. However, these vehicles also add to congestion and pollution woes in the city.

Around 4.5 million people, or 70 per cent of commuters, rely on these minibuses to get around the city, the Kenya Transport Ministry estimates. 

The matatus are an example that in the absence of an organised transport system with the government’s support, an unorganised and chaotic public transport system takes shape in urban areas, which is also old and poorly maintained.

The lack of public transit services in Africa has prompted private players to step in to fill the gap with paratransit services. These transit services perpetuate unsafe driving practices and high greenhouse gas emissions.

The matatus are old and poorly maintained, without newer emissions-reducing features. The resultant pollution affects the people taking paratransit, who are the city’s poorest. Policymakers must look at modernising public transport and improving regulations.

Read more: IPCC report: Clap for Kolkata’s public transport

Black carbon emissions arise from these vehicles that do not meet the required fuel emission norms. Diesel engines are a major source of urban air pollution and are responsible for greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet, these private minibuses operate in large numbers because of the lack of options for commuters. The commuters in these minibuses face overcrowding, congestion and reckless driving, making matatus a dangerous but necessary utility for getting around the city. There is a lack of modern paratransit options for the commuters of Nairobi.

Matatu drivers also engage in engine idling — the practice of leaving a vehicle’s engine running while stationary. The drivers do this because these vehicles are very old and poorly maintained and they fear the minibus may not start again if they turn it off.

Many matatus are left with their engines running all day. The engine idling act also releases harmful pollutants from its exhaust into the air. Nairobi is one of the world’s most gridlocked cities and the thousands of matatus idling their engines during commute times send millions of tiny, harmful pollutants into the city’s air.

The matatu operators also have monetary incentives to move as many people as possible quickly through the various routes. More people mean more income and thus the matatus become overloaded, stop on sidewalks or in the middle of roads and ignore traffic laws.

The government can look at providing incentives to reward matatu operators who meet safety and emissions metrics, which will encourage investment in better equipment.

The existing infrastructure seems to be burdened and the Nairobi County government has taken up measures like the introduction of Bus Rapid Transit on selected routes in Nairobi to ease traffic congestion.

Read more: Kerala registers car that runs on hydrogen fuel — 1st in country

Other policy solutions to ease traffic congestion in Nairobi can include implementing a congestion tax, carbon tax and toll charges. Matatu drivers in Nairobi can also be made aware of the costs associated with leaving engines idling, as they can save on fuel costs if drivers reduce the time they leave their engines idling.

Initiatives like introducing electric minibuses in Kenya can go a long way toward a sustainable mobility future. Nairobi-based company BasiGo has started the initiative and plans to introduce over 1,000 e-buses by the close of 2022. The buses will be available for purchase by bus operators.

Diesel buses have been the only option for bus operators till now, but the new initiative will change that. These electric buses will produce 95% less CO2 emissions and be more affordable and reliable.

Measures can also be taken to have the matatus run on cleaner emission and clean fuel technologies as the minibuses are also part of the cultural fabric of Nairobi. This can be undertaken to not completely do away with the transport system beloved by the city residents.

Thus, the government and policymakers should look at improving and upgrading its public transit system to serve these urban areas and low-income passengers better.

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